By Kathy Hall
Published on November 14, 1974
The first women elders of the Walla Walla College Church were ordained last Saturday during the eleven o’clock service.
In remarks preceding the ordination service, Richard Gage, pastor of the College Church, discussed briefly the significance of the service, and the ordination of women elders in relation to Biblical teaching and in relation to church policy.
He also presented two concepts which, he said, evolved from the study of the question concerning ordination of women as elders: the concept of the work of the elder and that of the relationship of the congregation to its leaders.
The ordination service is for the “setting apart of leaders for the office of elder,” said Gage. “It is the responsibility of the church to recognize its leadership in this way.
“The ordination service is symbolized by the laying on of hands,” he continued. He then gave the history of this symbol from the custom of the Hebrew fathers laying their hands on their children to bless them through the priestly duty of laying hands upon the sacrifices. “With this symbol we link ourselves with the past,” he added.
“The difference in this particular service is in the individuals participating,” he stated. “Here, I particularly refer to the women being ordained.”
Because of the confusion resulting from the question of ordaining women as elders, Gage explored briefly the relationship of this question to Biblical instruction: “The Biblical research committee of the General Conference sees no violation of scriptural truth. The word elder in the Bible means an older one or wise one.” He added that the Bible also used the term bishop, which means overseer.
“In describing the duties of the elder, the scripture says he must be the ‘husband of one wife,’ and some people just can’t understand how a woman can do that. But the Biblical research committee has decided that the statement is talking about a way of life, not a marital status.”
He also discussed the ordination of women elders in relation to church policy: “The General Conference committee and councils have made a distinction between the ordination of women to the ministry and their ordination as elders. The General Conference committees have been concerned with the ordination of women to the ministry.
“The Autumn Council decided that it isn’t time to ordain women to the ministry,” he continued, “but that ordination of women as elders, a local office, is a local matter.”
The consideration of ordaining women as elders resulted in the evaluation of the elder’s work. “Does the elder have a function? Is it different from the work of a deacon?” queried Gage.
He stated the elder’s work as being that of helping to make church decisions, participating on the platform in church services, leading the congregation in prayer, “Just meeting the needs of the people.” He concluded that the church needed women elders to meet some of these needs.
The relationship of the congregation to its leadership also came under study as a result of the issue of women elders. “The role of the congregation took on a new dimension as the members had difference of opinion, which was hard for some to view,” said Gage.
“Yet the situation was reminiscent of the past and some of the great struggles of the early church, which brought new life to the church,” he said.
He added that the voting in of the church’s officers this year by secret ballot suggests that the “congregation’s vote is not just a rubber stamp.”
Gage concluded by emphasizing that without followers, a church cannot have leaders. He concluded with an appeal to the membership to recognize and follow its elected leaders.
When asked what she saw as the significance of the ordination service, Kathy Baruch, one of the six women ordained, said, “At first I thought of the service as being for the benefit of the congregation, but kneeling in front of all those people and the laying on of hands made me realize the responsibilities of the position I was taking over and aware of my own spiritual needs.” She added, “The service made the name elder a part of me, not just an intellectual concept.”
Fay Blix, also one of the ordained women, saw the significance to be “in the beauty of the symbolism.” She added, “I can’t explain what happens to you when you have that hand on your head. I almost had a sense of bitterness because women have been deprived of that for so long.”
“I want the inclusion of women elders not to be viewed in terms of women’s rights,” she emphasized, “but rather to be seen as more of a unification of the whole church because we’re now meeting more people’s needs.”